collecting rain water in colorado

jump on the barrel wagon!

Background

Leaf.

Before this summer, if you lived in Colorado and collected and used rainwater at your own home, you were a CRIMINAL! That’s right, seems silly, but there’s probably a fair amount of us who have been breaking the law [Like Joseph’s mother in Lyons, gasp!]. That’s what you get for being rootsy and trying to be judicious with a precious resource while you are just trying to grow watermelons and huge, lumpy heirloom tomatoes, and free flowers to give to your girlfriend. (Rest assured, all of you rain-collecting friends in other states, Colorado is the only state with an actual ban on domestic rain barrel collection—in fact, there’s only four states total that even restrict rainwater harvesting at all.)

This crazy idea of the delinquent grandma (think Joseph’s mother again) watering her tulips with rainwater that collected in her watering can she left outside during a thunderstorm comes from the fact that, in Colorado, our water rights come from the priority system, or “first in time, first in right.” We’ve all been there: down at the base of the foothills in the springtime, when you can’t remember when it rained, but your shoes are a beautiful shade of caked-on mud brown, your feet feel about 20 lbs. heavier than when you left your house, and you think you just might have acquired all the necessary experience to be a professional mud wrestler. All of that water must be coming from somewhere—maybe the snowmelt way up in the ski towns where the lifts are screeching to a halt and the snowboard bros are switching to fly fishing.

snowyriver

Imagine if Eldora ski resort decided to get into the business of shipping Colorado snow to wacky consumers around the world (“For the low cost of $19.99, you can experience a taste of colorful Colorado winters in your very own home! *additional overnight shipping and insulated packaging fee of $12.99 applies to all orders shipped below the Arctic Circle”). While this would probably create some jobs, and potentially yet another new industry for our state, some crazy bad stuff would probably happen in time. Boulder Reservoir could shrivel up, Niwot could become a sandy desert, our awesome farmers market would just have a grilled cheese truck and sad kale-craving folks walking around with empty canvas bags.

Ok, so that is an extreme example and probably would never happen, but it explains the logic behind Colorado’s water rights. Precipitation that is caught out of turn and is kept from reaching its destination downstream could potentially affect historic water flow patterns. That’s a big deal, and a concept that scared people for a long time into being afraid of domestic rainwater collection systems.

rainwater map

This is a really confusing map of the water flows across the state of Colorado

The idea of domestic captured rainwater having a profound effect on the availabilities to downstream water users has been questioned quite a bit. In fact, a study done by Douglas County (warning, it’s SUPER-boring—if you have insomnia, this could be your solution) states that from 1950 to 2004, the amount of rainwater that was sucked up by plants and rainwater that evaporated was an average of 97% of the total precipitation that fell. Basically, hardly any of the rainwater that fell in Douglas County from 1950 to 2004 made its way downstream. A recent study by Colorado Stormwater Center (part of CSU) came up with similar findings. This seems to make more sense to me, based on science and stuff, but please do draw your own conclusions and do your own research.

House Bill 16-005

rainwater james garner

James Garner in the western “Support Your Local Sheriff”  

credit: CHEROKEE / THE KOBAL COLLECTION

There’s a new sheriff in town! Instead of two holsters, he’s got two rain barrels on his hip, and he’s actually your house… As of August of 2016, each single family residence can have two rain barrels, not to exceed a total of 110 gallon capacity. You can only snag water that fell on your roof and then got directed into your barrels. (Oh, but what if some stray raindrops accidentally broke the rules and fell directly into your barrel?!?!?) You’re also limited in use; you can only use your newly acquired water for outdoor purposes, like watering gardens and yards. You’re still restricted from using it for drinking or washing or filling your dog’s bowl or flushing your toilet or watering your indoor plants. This means you still can’t use it to wash your hair, even though old mountain wisdom says rainwater is basically nature’s hair conditioner.

And also, a bona-fide Earthship house with all of its systems still won’t be legal in Colorado, even though it uses water 4 times (which is both crazy and awesome), just because it’d be hard to run a self-sustaining home on 110 gallons. Although, as of 2013, it has been legal to reuse gray water in the state of Colorado—that’s also a big step towards water conservation. Have you seen the toilets that reuse old sink water to flush with? 

Well now some genius sells an add-on lid for your own existing toilets so you can use your water twice too! Although if you use a composting toilet, you’re just going above and beyond already, and a few months ago, you heard what I had to say about those

rainwater toilet

Rainwater Collection Basics

Wanna jump on the barrel wagon? Here’s a DIY rainwater collection system tutorial. Target even sells a rainwater collection system, and two of them puts you right about at your 110 gallon maximum (but they are kinda camouflaged, so you might be able to get away with more than 110 gallons if you’re stealthy enough and have the constitution to be a water rebel).

What about the mosquitos, you ask? Yes, we don’t want any West Nile (is that still a thing?) or malaria or anything. According to the new bill, HB 16-005, your rain barrels must be covered to keep the mosquitos at bay. Although, this blogger puts goldfish in their rain barrels to keep the mosquitos away. They grub on the mosquito larvae and you get some extra pets out of the deal. Just remember to bring them in during the winter; they don’t swim in snow too well.

Here’s a really good primer on rainwater harvesting. It states that an average 25 x 40 ft roof collects almost 600 gallons of water in one hour during moderate rain. Those two 55 gallon rain barrels you just got are going to fill up pretty quickly during our Colorado springtime rains! Make sure to put gravel beneath your barrels and get them ready for overflowing so you won’t inadvertently wash out the area around your foundation (walk-out basement anyone?).

Rainwater Barrel Design

Now that we’re all stoked on getting our 110 gallons up and ready to go by the next summer thunderstorm, how can we look good doing it too? I don’t think anyone really wants this kind of look when it comes to rain barrels, although it is an option if you love the color.

rainwater blue barrel

This barrel fits my modern aesthetic (and it comes in a delicious dark gray) and has a hose attached to it already so you can water your veggies with hardly any effort at all. Not quite sure what the mini-fountain is doing in this shot, but this barrel looks pretty different from the blue one, yeah?

rainwater concrete barrel

And what about getting the water from your roof to your new gorgeous barrel? I’m not a huge fan of how the painted galvanized downspouts get all bent and look like skinny loose teeth stuck to the corners of a building, so if you’re like me (and I know I am), then what’s another option? Well if you happen to have gutters, you could always replace your downspout with a nice rain chain.

rainwater chain

Or you could just get this rain barrel by Bas van der Veerı—there’s even a watering can all tucked away for safekeeping right up top! This prototype is 3D printed and even won a design award.

rainwater bas van der veer

THANKS FOR READING

**I’m no water rights attorney (thank goodness…I just write blogs, spread the word about WORKSHOP8, and draw things on the computer), so if you really want to understand all of this better, consult a professional or go to law school or something.**

Melissa McGinley
28 June 2016